On a busy pedestrian street in the town of Daugavpils, in Latvia’s Latgale region, Alesja Klescenoka is visibly distressed as she tries to articulate her feelings about the war in Ukraine.
“I have a one-year-old baby and I don’t know if we’re going to survive, what will happen to us? We don’t know if Putin will come for us,” she says. “But my Dad thinks the war is correct, that Putin has done the right thing. I can’t even talk to him about it.”
If Latvia is on the war’s cusp, Daugavpils is at its sharpest tip, located in the country’s easternmost state, mere kilometres from where all three countries intersect.
But, despite their geographical proximity, these countries couldn’t be more different.
Latvia is a NATO member and is currently hosting a battle group of 1,500 NATO troops led by a group of 540 Canadians, to deter a potential Russian invasion.
Belarus, on the other hand, is Russia’s closest ally and is acting as a springboard for troops invading Ukraine.
In Daugavpils, divisions in public opinion on the invasion of Ukraine run deep.
Older Russian Latvians recall communism as golden era
This is a city divided between young and old, Russian and Latvian, on whether Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is justified.
The discord is largely due to a wistfulness of memory for older Russian Latvians who remember communism as a golden era for Eastern Europe.
“They were the privileged elite. There were better supplies of food, more consumer goods available, and the (Baltic states) were a desirable area to live,” says Aurel Braun, professor of political science and international relations at the University of Toronto.
“Materially they may actually be much better off now. But they don’t have the status and that creates a lot of resentment.
“It’s a nostalgia for something that never really existed, but it existed in their mind.”
Klescenoka is one of millions of ethnic Russians scattered across eastern Europe’s ex-Soviet states, who may be Russian by ethnicity, but often hold little other ties to their motherland.
In Latgale, a town of 80,000, about 34 per cent of the population is ethnically Russian – well higher than the rest of the country.
Just because they’re Russian doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re all pro-Putin. What it does mean, however, is that around here, opinions on the war in Ukraine aren’t clear cut.
The residents Global News spoke to over the course of a day in Daugavpils, however, were unanimous on one aspect: that the older generation, especially ethnic Russians who lived under Soviet rule, largely support the war, while younger people do not.
“The older generation definitely feels different about this,” an elderly woman named Lana says in Russian, speaking through a translator, as she reclined on a bench in the central plaza of Daugavpils. she, like many people who spoke with Global News, asked for their last name not to be used.
“Ukrainians are much more to blame. Much more,” she says.
Ethnic Russian Latvians split loyalties
It is a sunny Tuesday afternoon in Daugavpils. Soviet-era buildings line the streets, interspersed every so often with the ornate facade of the art-nouveau architecture that Latvia is so famous for.
The main plaza, a small pocket of open space opposite a shopping mall and featuring a neon heart in its centre, is busy. Residents hurry by with shopping bags or recline on benches in pairs, squinting into the sun and chatting. A group of children chase pigeons.
Just outside the town, a domineering Soviet-era monument to the Red Latvian Riflemen stands sentinel over the River Daugava. The statue, in the shape of a soldier with his hand outstretched in defiance, memorialises the Latvian soldiers who transferred their loyalty to the Bolsheviks in 1917.
Societal divisions are, naturally, not evident here at first glance. But people also aren’t withholding their opinions, when asked.
“It all began with Poroshenko, and this young guy came and added up to it,” Lana says in Russian, shaking her head. She’s referring to former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, and the “young guy” is current Ukrainian president Volodomyr Zelenskyy.
Lana strongly believes Poroshenko had “too close a relationship with Europe,” which set Ukraine on a course for war.
She says her grandfathers fought in both world wars.
She’s happy Crimea was annexed in 2014, she says, and it should “stay in Russia, where it belongs.”
However, she says “it’s a pity” that peaceful civilians in Ukraine are currently suffering.
“Actually, people need to respect each other, and listen to all other opinions. And causing all of this, destroying the whole country – that’s really painful, very painful,” she says.
She also admits that she can’t discuss the war with her daughter, who lives in England, to “keep our relationship intact.” She laments the “pro-Ukrainian” news that her daughter listens to there.
Peteris Supe, an ex-police officer who is now retired, says “there is a big division between the Latvians and Russian-speaking population of Latvia.”
Supe, who is Latvian, feels passionately that the war should stop. His answers are long and winding, the translator barely able to keep up.
“It’s wrong what Putin has done,” Supe says. “War and weapons are not the right way to solve problems and it should be done the right way, by talking.
“The world has gone mad.”
However, he says his opposition to the war is often at odds with the opinions of his friends, who he says change their minds “day by day.”
'We are speaking Russian, but we’ve never been to Russia'
After the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991, acceptance of ex-pat Russians in its former republics varied widely.
Belarus, for example, offered Russians full citizenship and treated them almost identically to their domestic population.
Baltic states such as Estonia and Latvia, however, restricted citizenship to their pre-Second World War citizens and their offspring. Russians assumed non-citizenship status but were afforded most of the same rights as Latvians. However, they were not allowed to vote.
In recent years, though, the Latvian government has made citizenship available to ethnic Russians through naturalization.
In 1991, according to the Central Statistical Bureau of Latvia, close to 40 per cent of the population of the country were Latvian Russians. That number now sits at 24 per cent, or about one in four residents. Russian is widely spoken throughout the country.
But, for many, the ties to Russia stop at the ability to speak the language.
“We are speaking Russian, but we’ve never been to Russia,” Daugavpils resident Liana says.
“We are all one culture here and it doesn’t matter what language you speak.”
In Daugavpils, residents speak Latvian, Russian or the regional Latgalian language — or all three interchangeably.
Liana says many of the younger generations in the city are somewhat disassociated with their Russian heritage. Her partner, Vadim, says he speaks Russian, English, Latgalian and Polish — after 12 years spent attending a Polish school. It’s why they both find it hard to express their feelings on the Ukrainian war, saying they are against civilian casualties but think Ukrainian corruption contributed to the invasion.
The fight against corruption in Ukraine has been well-documented since the fall of the Soviet Union, and this is widely considered the reason behind the country being blocked from joining NATO.
Russian President Vladimir Putin also used this as one of his reasons to justify his invasion, saying corruption had “acquired some kind of special character in Ukraine.”
As of 2021, Ukraine ranks 122nd out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Russia ranks 136th.
'Only the strongest man... can be president of Russia'
When asked if they worried that the Ukrainian war would infiltrate Latvia, reactions in Daugavpils were mixed. Some, such as Klescenoka, the young mother, were highly afraid Latvia could be invaded next. Others said they weren’t concerned.
One aspect of the war the people of Daugavpils are unanimous on is their sympathies with the Ukrainian people. Many spoke of Ukrainian friends or the Latvian Ukrainian diaspora who have been affected.
Klescenoka says it’s one of the hardest things for her to come to terms with.
“I have friends in Ukraine and now they’re fighting. I asked them if they have killed someone and they say ‘of course, what other option do we have?’ I’m shocked because they’re my friends,” she says.
Irina Kokina says she has friends in both Ukraine and Russia and “I love all people,” so she doesn’t have an opinion on the war.
Natalija, an older Latvian-Russian who splits her time between the United Kingdom and Latvia, says she is also concerned about her friends and that the war is “terrible.” However, she says, she likes Putin.
“Only the strongest man with a clever brain can be the president of Russia,” she says.